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Garnett v. Zeilinger

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 28, 2018

SHONICE G. GARNETT et al., Plaintiffs,


          CHRISTOPHER R COOPER, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs-recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in the District of Columbia-filed this putative class action against the director of the District's benefit program. They allege several violations of the federal requirements for administration of the program. Plaintiffs now seek to certify two classes of District benefits recipients. Finding that the resolution of their motion is governed by the D.C. Circuit's recent decision in D.L. v. District of Columbia (“D.L. II”), 860 F.3d 713 (D.C. Cir. 2017), the Court will grant their motion, though it will certify three classes instead of two.

         I. Factual Background

         A. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”)

         Congress originally enacted the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) in 1964, seeking to combat hunger and malnutrition by assisting low-income households in purchasing food. See Food Stamp Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-525, 78 Stat. 703 (codified at 7 U.S.C. §§ 2021 et seq.).[1] A household is typically eligible for SNAP benefits if its net income is below the federal poverty line and its resources generally do not exceed $2, 000. 7 U.S.C. § 2014(c), (g). Within the federal government, the Secretary of Agriculture has delegated most of the administration of SNAP to the federal Food and Nutrition Service (“FNS”), an agency within the Department of Agriculture. 7 C.F.R. § 271.3.

         Responsibility for administering SNAP is shared between the federal government and the States. The federal government provides the funding for benefits and covers 50 percent of administrative costs. 7 U.S.C. §§ 2013(a), 2025. States can elect to participate in the program and, if they do, are responsible for certifying household eligibility, issuing benefits, and otherwise administering the program on the state level. Id. §§ 2013(a), 2020(a)(1); 7 C.F.R. § 271.4. If a State elects to participate, it must administer its SNAP program in accordance with the relevant statutes and the Secretary of Agriculture's regulations. 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e); 7 C.F.R. § 273.2.

         Part of these requirements involve the procedure for processing applications for SNAP benefits. For instance, States must allow a household to apply for SNAP benefits the same day that it contacts a SNAP program office in person during office hours. 7 U.S.C. § 2020(e)(2)(B)(iii). Once a State receives an application for benefits, it must “promptly” certify a household's eligibility. Id. § 2020(e)(3). This certification process must be completed and benefits provided no later than thirty days after the application's filing. Id. For certain households with extremely low income-less than $150 per month or liquid resources less than $100-the State must provide benefits no later than seven days after an application is filed. Id. § 2020(e)(9)(A). These are known as “expedited” applications.

         Eligible households are certified for a specific period of time, known as the “certification period.” See id. § 2020(e)(4). States are required to ensure that households receive a notice at the start of the last month of their certification period, warning them of the expiration of the certification period and the need to recertify to continue receiving benefits. Id. For any household that submits a recertification application no later than fifteen days prior to the expiration of its certification period, the State must provide benefits-if the household remains eligible-without a break in provision. Id. If a State fails to process a completed application on time, the household is entitled to a written notice of this failure and information regarding appeal rights, including the right to a hearing. Id. § 2020(e)(10).

         B. Procedural history

         In August 2017, a group of D.C. residents filed suit against Laura Zeilinger, the Director of the District's Department of Human Services-which oversees the District's SNAP program-alleging that the District's administration of SNAP was deficient in several respects.[2]Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that the District was: (1) failing to process initial applications for benefits and provide benefits to eligible households within the applicable statutory time limit, in violation of the SNAP Act, Am. Compl. ¶ 171; (2) failing to complete the SNAP recertification application process so as to allow eligible households to receive benefits without a break in service, also in violation of the SNAP Act, id. ¶ 172; and (3) failing to provide notice and an opportunity for a hearing for SNAP applicants whose applications were not processed on time, in violation of the SNAP Act and the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, id. ¶ 173. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief to correct these violations.

         Simultaneously with their complaint, Plaintiffs filed a motion for class certification. Plaintiffs sought to certify two classes: (1) a class of residents whose SNAP benefit applications were not processed in accordance with the timelines mandated by statute and (2) a class of residents who did not receive their recertification notices as required by statute and had their benefits terminated as a consequence. Pls.' Mem. Law. Supp. Mot. Class Certification (“Class Cert. Mot.”) at 4. Plaintiffs later filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, and the Court set a parallel briefing schedule for both that motion and the motion for class certification. Following a period of limited discovery related to issues raised in the motion for a preliminary injunction, the parties completed briefing on both motions. The Court held a hearing on both motions on March 19, 2018. It will now resolve Plaintiffs' pending motion for class certification.[3]

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a) establishes four requirements for certification of a class: (1) numerosity, that “the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable”; (2) commonality, that “there are questions of law or fact common to the class”; (3) typicality, that “the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class”; and (4) adequacy, that “the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a). In addition to meeting these four requirements under Rule 23(a), a putative class must also meet one of the requirements of Rule 23(b). Here, Plaintiffs allege that they meet the requirements of Rule 23(b)(2), that “the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that final injunctive relief . . . is appropriate respecting the class as a whole.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(2). The party seeking certification bears the burden of persuasion, and must show that the putative classes meet the requirements of Rule 23 by a preponderance of the evidence. See, e.g., Hoyte v. District of Columbia, 2017 WL 3208456, at * 5 (D.D.C. July 27, 2017).

         III. Analysis

         The District challenges class certification under both Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b)(2). Before confronting these challenges, the Court will briefly respond to two threshold arguments the District raises.

         A. The District's threshold arguments

         First, the District contends that class certification is not appropriate because Plaintiffs cannot meet the requirements for a preliminary injunction. Def.'s Opp'n Pls.' Mot. Class Certification (“Class Cert. Opp'n”) at 7-8; Def.'s Surreply Supp. Opp'n Pls.' Mot. Class Certification (“Class Cert. Surreply”) at 2-3. The District cites a single case for this proposition: Hardy v. Fisher, 701 F.Supp.2d 614 (S.D.N.Y. 2010). But that case in inapposite. In Hardy, the district court ruled that the putative class was not entitled to preliminary injunctive relief because the plaintiffs raised claims that could not be brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See id. at 622-23. The court stated that the “denial of the motion for injunctive relief moot[ed] the motion for certification of an injunctive class.” Id. at 617 n.3. But here the District does not argue that Plaintiffs cannot bring injunctive relief claims under the statute at issue; rather, their arguments against the motion for preliminary injunction focus on why Plaintiffs fail to meet the specific requirements for preliminary injunctive relief. See Def.'s Opp'n Pls.' Mot. Prelim. Inj.; Def.'s Surreply Supp. Opp'n Pls.' Mot. Prelim. Inj. In any case, even if the Court were to follow the approach taken by the court in Hardy, it would be premature to deny class certification on this ground now because the Court has not yet ruled on the preliminary injunction motion. If the Court were to conclude that Plaintiffs could not obtain any injunctive relief under the statute, it could decertify the class at that juncture.

         Second, the District argues that class certification is unnecessary because “the ‘injunctive relief sought by the named plaintiffs would benefit all proposed class members.'” Class Cert Surreply at 3 (quoting Sargent v. Black, 576 F.Supp. 882, 888 (D.D.C. 1983)); see also Class Cert. Opp'n at 7. This is a somewhat odd position for the District to take: it later argues, as the Court will discuss, that a single injunction would not remedy the harms for all class members. See Class Cert Opp'n at 18.

         This argument is unpersuasive in any event. The Court has an obligation to ensure that any injunction it issues is “narrowly tailored to remedy the specific harm shown.” Nev. Dep't of Health & Human Servs. v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 435 F.3d 326, 330 (D.C. Cir. 2006). To the extent that the named plaintiffs show that they are individually harmed, the Court could issue an injunction narrowly tailored to them individually-i.e., directing the District to process their specific applications or issue their specific recertification notices on time-which would provide no relief to the absent class members. Thus, contrary to the District's argument, any injunctive relief issued to the named plaintiffs would not necessarily or automatically benefit the absent class members.[4] The Court will therefore turn to the requirements for certification under Rule 23.

         B. Requirements of Rule 23(a)

         The District argues that Plaintiffs fail to show they meet the four requirements for class certification in Rule 23(a). While the District challenges all four requirements, it focuses on commonality and typicality. The Court ultimately concludes that this case is analogous to the D.C. Circuit's recent decision in D.L. II and, as ...

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